We all have our addictions. Alcohol or anger, power or pornography, self-absorption or spending—any compulsive, Researchers now believe that about 60% of addiction is epigenetic. self-destructive behavior is a legitimate candidate for addiction.
The nastiest addictions are those passed along through the generations—perhaps epigenetically. Epigenetics is about how environment and experience leaves an imprint on your DNA. Researchers now believe that about 60% of addiction is epigenetic. That’s right—you can inherit the repercussions of traumatic experiences of your ancestors and their adaptive responses in your genes.
Sometimes adaptive, often maladaptive. One generation suffers through famine, for example, and two generations later researchers find the grandchildren are obese.
Small wonder some people can hardly imagine overcoming their worst vices. It’s not easy when a behavioral response is in your blood.
Like the next generation after the Exodus—the children of those who had left Egypt behind and died over the forty years of wandering. With them, it was literally a blood addiction—animal blood. That’s how Torah works: It’s called mashal hakadmoni1 —”the primal metaphor”—because it contains the essential paradigm of everything in our universe.Torah is filled with paradigms for everything. Including addictions. Including addictions.
Seven times2 the Torah warns the Jews who have left Egypt, “Quit it with the animal blood already!” Finally, the seventh time around, to this second generation, Moses says, “Be strong, and don’t consume blood. Spill it on the ground like water.”3
And in fact, Jews have taken that admonition very seriously ever since. We salt our meat while still raw with coarse salt to draw out as much blood as possible.4 If so much as a drop of blood is found in a chicken’s egg, we throw out the whole thing.
The Origins of Blood Addiction
But the question remains: Why, now, after 40 years, must Moses tell these people to be strong?
There, Rabbi Yehuda remarks that the very fact that Moses had to tell these people to be strong tells us that they were addicted to blood. As Nachmanides explains, 40 years had passed and they were still drinking raw, animal blood as their parents had done in the magical rites of Egypt. There they would make sacrifices to demons, and then fill bowls with blood and invite the demons to take part in a meal with them. They would drink the blood themselves, and experience visions and hallucinations, even foretelling the future.
But Rabbi Shimon ben Zoma appears to disagree—to the extreme. “Blood is disgusting to a normal human being,” he says. “The Torah is repeating this to tell you that you must be strong with every mitzvah. After all, if we are told to be strong with something so easy to avoid,That’s the strange thing about addictions: We come to love that which is destructive and repulsive. all the more so we have to be strong with every mitzvah.”
On which the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, makes a fascinating remark: The two rabbis are not really in disagreement. Drinking an animal’s blood is repulsive to a normal human being. But these people, even in the next generation, were addicted.6
The Strength to Surrender
That’s the thing about addictions. We become addicted to those things that are the most destructive to the life of a healthy human being. Although at first the addict loves his chosen substance or behavior, eventually he comes to loathe the substance, loathe his addiction, and loathe himself for being an addict. But he can’t stop.
So Moses must tell them, “Be strong. No matter how intense your desire for blood is, listen to what G‑d is telling you to do—because that is the only way you can truly become a master over your own desires: Take that blood and spill it on the ground like water.”
That is the first step to escaping that boiling fury, that blood that curdles in your veins, that beast has you between its teeth and won’t let go, that rules your life as a slave ruling over its master: Be strong, and with G‑d’s help, pour that bloody beast inside you like water upon the lowly earth. Put down the drink. Don’t buy that next fix. Put a block on your computer. Then you can begin a program of recovery.
There are other crazy addictions that are passed from generation to generation that have nothing to do with substances, devices or even pleasure. The society in which you live brings its own maladaptations, behaviors that would seem bizarre to any outside observer, but to which most of us have sold our very souls. Crazy working hours. Slavery to fashions, fads and vogues. Fear of “what will they say at work if I suddenly start keeping Shabbos (or wearing a kippah, or no longer eating the same food everyone eats)?”
Be strong and dump all those fears on the earth like water. You will be released from your chains. You will be free to grow, to have your own life.
It takes strength to face up to your addictions.It takes strength to face up to your addictions. It takes courage to humble yourself. It takes courage to humble yourself, to admit you need help, and to surrender to a power greater than yourself. But it takes the most strength of all to ask for the courage to change your behavior, today.
With that strength, which flows from an innermost humility, you can change not only your own life, but the course of a river that has flowed for generations. You can open up a new future, for yourself and for your children, and for your children’s children.